Ospreys make auspicious return to La Jolla’s Scripps Pier in a nest built for them
A pair of ospreys has taken up residence in La Jolla after efforts by two local environmentalists and a professor resulted in a safe place for the birds to nest.
The stainless-steel platform, anchored on the end of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier, was organized by Art Cooley and Bev Grant, a married couple who share a love of ospreys, environmentalism and philanthropy, and facilitated by Greg Rouse, a professor of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which owns the pier.
The nest is the only currently known osprey nest in La Jolla after a decades-long wait following a severe drop in the numbers of ospreys and other predatory birds. From the 1940s to the 1970s, Cooley said, “bald eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans were all affected by high levels of DDT,” a chemical used as an insecticide. “The DDT thinned the eggshells, and so if you have a thinner egg in the nest, when [the birds] start turning them, they end up cracking.”
DDT was banned in 1972, and “as the ambient levels of DDT dropped, the fertility of the ospreys increased,” said Cooley, a retired teacher of ornithology, biology and marine biology.
However, Cooley said, “part of the problem was there wasn’t nest sites available for them. You needed to get rid of the DDT, find a nest spot and leave the rest to the ospreys.”
Rouse said ospreys have been seen fishing at the Scripps Pier for years and that it appeared the large birds tried to make their nest there, close to a food source but away from human activity that might disrupt their nesting.
“We’ve seen on the end of the pier, we have these booms that extend out,” Rouse said. “Every now and then they’d end up with seaweed or sargassum hanging there. The only explanation is the ospreys were trying to build a nest out there. But there was no way they could actually get a nest on that structure.”
To nest, ospreys need something wide and sturdy, a rarity along the coast where they fish. “It’s not a trivial nest that they build,” Cooley said. “It’s not something you can have on a branch. You really need to have a whole crotch of a tree to build a nest.”
The ideal location is a secure, wide platform “maybe 4 feet by 4 feet,” he said.
Cooley, Grant and Rouse discussed the idea of building the ospreys a proper nesting site on the pier, with hopes that it would encourage the birds to mate.
“[Cooley and Grant] said they’d be willing to fund that, and I said I’d be willing to start the conversation within the Scripps administration,” Rouse said.
“There was enthusiasm for this” from the Scripps development office to the machine shop and pier managers, Rouse said. The project, funded by Grant’s family foundation, began in December 2018 and took about eight months to finish.
Scripps “went gangbusters,” Grant said. “They built this state-of-the-art boom that has an arm that retracts.” Having a retractable arm, she said, addresses the concern “about what happens if there’s a storm. The arm will retract and bring [the nest] back in and the ospreys will be safe.”
The nesting platform is “very aesthetic,” Grant said. To encourage the ospreys’ comfort, Grant said she and Cooley added wood and other natural materials collected on beach walks. “Then we got seaweed on the pier, we threw that up in there. They got the idea.”
“It isn’t as hard as one thought to get them to come back,” Cooley said.
Rouse said “the birds really started using it a few weeks ago. We were so happy. The reappearance of … predatory birds like the ospreys is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and the fact that we have them commonly on Scripps Pier but they weren’t able to breed, it just seemed to be an incomplete situation.”
The osprey couple, named Ozzy and Dame Edna, are “a rather outrageous duo,” Grant said. But they seem content in their nest. One “brought in a fish the other day,” she said.
It’s unknown, however, if there are eggs in the nest. “Hopefully we’ll have successful chicks being raised in a safe place and they won’t be subject to any predators,” Rouse said.
The next part of the project is to mount a 24-hour camera nearby. Scripps personnel is working on it, and the camera also will be funded by Grant’s foundation.
“Once it’s on cam, the world can have something positive to watch,” Grant said. “We had a great deal of fun planning it, naming them, getting them settled.”
Noting that the next-nearest osprey nest is on a wooden platform in Del Mar, Grant said she’s hoping for more. “It’s been a real nice thing in a world where there’s not a lot to laugh about.” ◆
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